PRINT August 1962

Portland: The Juried Exhibition


THE REVIEW NEIL A. KOCH wrote covering the Oregon Art scene generally, and the “Oregon Artists, 1962” exhibition, specifically, deserves comment—since it was directed at one of the “baking powder art critics who so lavishly document every wisp of mediocrity.”

The review, in your June issue of Artforum, blasted Portland Art Museum’s juried exhibition of painting and sculpture by Oregon artists—calling it “not so much of an art show as a summation of the creative deterioration that has devastated the state . . .”

To get right to the point—mid-way through this pronunciamento, Neil A. Koch, Eugene artist, says “The pity of it all lies in the fact that in Oregon we cannot blame a single person, a single museum, a single group.” Then later in the same article, he says “The real culprits are the jury members who allow the hanging of such works.”

Koch’s diatribe then goes on to suggest that the museum should in the future select a jury with members who are not, and never have been, connected with the “Portland scene.”

Now—I believe I should take Mr. Koch to task on his comments.

Taking into consideration that Koch’s entry of an oil Heavenly Knight was rejected by the Oregon Artists’ jury, I would certainly prefer to believe that his arguments—regarding the quality of the exhibit—are not entirely invalidated. I would like to believe that just because an artist, such as Mr. Koch, is rejected from an exhibit that he is not so prejudiced as to be unable to give an objective opinion of the quality of an exhibit.

Furthermore, I would not like to eliminate a representative of a group that is one of the best qualified to give constructive criticism.

However, I can’t.

Why is it that those paintings and sculptures that are approved by jurors are often thought by the public to bear the art world’s equivalent of the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”—when actually, nothing could be further from the truth?

The decision of the Oregon Artists’ jury—or for that matter, any jury—whether it is composed of one man or a dozen, whether the judges live in Oregon, or from out-of-state—is never absolute.

In February, four art authorities were in Portland to decide what was going to be exhibited in two separate exhibitions. One, of course, was the trio for the Oregon Artists’ show; the other, a sole professional exhibition director, was in town to line up work for the Northwest Painters and Sculptors Exhibition—which is scheduled to open at the Seattle World’s Fair after Labor Day. Judges for this year’s Oregon show were Hubert Crehan, New York artist-critic and currently artist-in-residence at Reed College; and former Portlanders James Haseltine, director of the Salt Lake City Art Center; and Paul Mills, director of the Oakland Art Museum. Millard C. Rodgers, from the University of Washington’s department of fine arts was in town to make selections for the Seattle show. What is interesting to note is that a number of Oregon’s most vital (and controversial) painters, turned down by the judges of the Oregon exhibition, were asked by Millard Rodgers to exhibit at the fair.

Prevalent this year was the belief that the Oregon show lacked vigor. With a few exceptions, the truth is that it did. The show concentrated quite heavily on the work of established artists; mainly those who belonged to the Museum’s Artist Membership. There was a great deal of abstract and semiabstract, little representational and hardly any genuinely avant-garde. One of the more obvious reasons for the lack of the latter was because of a restriction the museum felt it had to make on the size of canvasses submitted. A double-door sized production, by Norma Heyser, for example, had no way of making it.

There is no denying, however, that the beleaguered trio should earn commendation for the sheer physical task that confronted them. In two days they plowed their way through a field of 550 entries.

Oregon is in an epidemic of amateur art. The number of artists, professional and amateur, in this state is not known. The Artists Membership at Portland Art Museum, that group of painters and sculptors who have had work accepted in previous exhibitions, now numbers 194. In addition, there are many persons on the museum’s mailing lists who call themselves artists—and we would venture to guess that there are quite a few who are amateurs but do not apply the word artist to themselves. Another group, the Oregon Society of Artists, has over 800 members, but many of them have art as an avocation or hobby and are engaged, economically at least, in other pursuits. The enrollment in art classes, at the Museum Art School, Portland State College, schools and universities downstate has zoomed in the last five years.

Artists hereabouts are not immune to influences and trends emanating from New York, San Francisco and Paris—and there are misgivings about this fact. We definitely have our share of bandwagon jumpers—all of whom have decided to make some variety of postwar abstraction their very own; and the trouble, I believe, for the majority of them is that they have chosen the motion rather than the act as the means to do it. Suffice to say, there is no lack of “powder room” and “university” painting styles.

But getting back to the jury: Just what kind of a jury should an Oregon show have?

The character of an exhibition such as the Oregon show—since the state is full of painters and all sorts of pictures—does depend principally on who does the choosing.

Obviously, had it been a group of painters doing the judging, the outcome would have been quite different . . . Painters picking out a show would most likely favor their immediate associates. However catholic their professional judgment might be and however strict their respect for technical experience, I seriously doubt whether a practicing artist would actively champion work very much unlike his own . . . On the contrary.

An alternative: There are some who would have us believe that collectors make the best arbitrators, as they are more liberal. I think collectors tend to sponsor all the various kinds of work they would themselves collect. Their selections, based on estimations of permanent value, are usually inclusive, though conservative.

And lastly, there are exhibition directors—such as Millard Rodgers whom we mentioned earlier; he has neither the painter’s narrow professional loyalties, nor the collector’s interest in solid acquisition. A good exhibition director wishes above all to make an effective show—and considering what Rodgers has thus far chosen, the Seattle exhibition will surely be a very effective presentation of what Oregon’s most red-blooded artists are doing.

The trouble with the Oregon show was that it was an OREGON show. The tragedy of the display is that there are now more people than ever who think that the museum has become—for the exhibition—a gymnasium for the display of second and third rate painters—works by people who can’t make the grade elsewhere, and on their own.

This writer holds that this growing assumption is partly unfair.

Culturally, Portland is in the throes of late adolescence. In the last three years, private galleries (sure, one is managed by a Museum Art School staffer), and places where independent artists are welcome to exhibit, have multiplied. Gallery space at the museum—never considered abundant—is lately more than ever at a premium.

Portland Art Museum is not standing still, as Mr. Koch’s article implied. Time has brought many handsome additions to the museum’s permanent collections—and moreover, changes in the museum’s role to meet the broadening needs of an art “hep” community. And the fact is, there are many gallery goers right now who believe that the museum is trying to play too many roles—and this is the major difficulty.

This writer, for one, has wondered if there is any longer need to tie up the museum’s gallery space, for as long as eight consecutive months in some years, with solo-shows by those painters and sculptors belonging to the Artist Membership.

His principal contention is—in the light of increased exhibition opportunities that now exist for Oregon artists—that the Museum’s increasingly inadequate gallery space would be better utilized in the bringing to Portland of a greater number of exhibits by artists from other regions.

Everyone would benefit.

Andy Rocchia

(The problems of large scale museum exhibitions of working artists are by no means restricted to Oregon and are worthy of further discussion. Ed.)